Politics

5 Things You Should Know From the Paul Manafort Trial, Day 2

President swings at a straw man and prosecutors mull shelving ‘star witness’ Rick Gates

President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, here in Washington in June, is on trial, facing 18 counts involving tax evasion and bank loan fraud. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Day Two of the tax evasion and bank fraud trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manifort is in the books.

The day featured testimony from five witnesses — including Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign chief — and dozens of pages of evidence on Manafort’s lavish lifestyle.

The high-powered political consultant is facing 18 counts and a maximum 305-year prison sentence if the Eastern Virginia jury finds him guilty.

These are the five biggest takeaways from Day Two and how the trial turns from here:

1. The president is tweeting at a ‘no collusion’ straw man

Saying it loud for the people in the back: THIS IS A TAX EVASION AND BANK FRAUD TRIAL.

None of the 18 counts against Manafort deal with collusion or conspiracy with a foreign nation, and the word Russia has not been mentioned through the trial’s first two days.

“Very few tax cases really do get a lot of attention,” said Robert Barnes, a tax attorney who represented actor Wesley Snipes in a high-profile tax evasion case in 2008.

But Manafort’s connection to the Trump campaign, which he managed for five months in 2016, has filled the courtroom with reporters and the internet with readers.

One of those onlookers keeping a close eye on the Manafort trial: the president. The way Trump sees it, Manafort’s prosecution is the product of a “rigged witch hunt” by Mueller’s team to discredit his 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton.

Trump questioned Wednesday whether Manafort was being treated more unfairly than famous Prohibition-era Chicago gangster Al Capone.

Manafort is a “political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement — although convicted of nothing?” the president tweeted Wednesday, referencing two previous GOP presidential campaigns that Manafort led. “Where is the Russian Collusion?” 

The president likely won’t get an answer to that last question anytime soon since prosecutors have agreed not to discuss Russia and its possible ties to the Trump campaign during the Manafort trial.

2. The defense may have turned the tables on the prosecution with ‘star witness’ Rick Gates

U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye shocked the courtroom Wednesday when he told Judge T.S. Ellis III that the trial’s supposed star witness, Manafort right-hand man Rick Gates, might not be called to the witness stand.

“He may testify, he may not,” Asonye said. “We’re trying to shorten the trial.”

The prosecution could be rethinking whether Gates, who pleaded guilty in February to money laundering charges in exchange for offering information on Manafort, will help them, multiple experts said.

In fact, Gates’ testimony could even hurt their case.

“It wouldn’t be the first time that someone else helped give someone a defense that the prosecution thought was going to actually help them,” said Kevin Thorn, a Washington-based criminal tax lawyer.

“It sounds to me like they’re a little hesitant to have him testify because they don’t know what he’s going to say, and they don’t know whether or not it’s going to give Manafort some sort of defense,” Thorn said.

In his opening statement Tuesday, Manafort attorney Thomas Zehnle made the defense team’s strategy loud and clear: Gates, they will argue, was the “point person” for Manafort’s finances. Gates embezzled money from Manafort. Gates is the one who should be in the defendant’s chair — not Manafort.

Diverting attention from Manafort by questioning Gates’ involvement in the pair’s finances is a smart tactic, one former federal prosecutor with experience in similar tax fraud cases said.

“The defense side is pointing to Gates … as they should,” the former Justice Department prosecutor said. “He was a convicted felon for lying — and now the government wants you to trust him as their witness?”

It might not be compelling enough for Manafort’s team to simply deny he willfully lied when he signed tax documents to circumvent the law and conceal money. Providing the jury with plausible alternatives for why Manafort’s money was illegally hidden — such as Gates going behind Manafort’s back to embezzle money from him — could plant more seeds of doubt.

“The defense’s main purpose is to put a lot of things out there and have someone grab on to it or gravitate towards it as a reason why someone couldn’t have done something or didn’t do something intentionally,” Thorn said.

3. If the prosecution has the right documents and evidence, to hell with a ‘star witness’

In most tax fraud trials, pomp and theatrics don’t usually sway a jury on whether the defendant is guilty or not.

“In these kinds of cases, the star witnesses are really the documents,” the former DOJ prosecutor said. “That’s what you really have difficulty, as a defense attorney, combatting.”

So far, the jurors have not been shown much beyond Manafort’s lavish spending habits and how he made his fortune as a political consultant from 2005 to 2014 for Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych, who became president in 2010.

Asonye assured jurors Tuesday that the evidence will eventually show how Manafort “constantly issued orders” and “directed” the activities of his associates, including Gates.

Prosecutors originally planned to submit 50 exhibits and more than 400 documents to the record as evidence. Ellis urged them to consider reducing that amount Tuesday.

“I do not want a data dump,” Ellis said, referring to a practice in which prosecutors submit so much evidence to the record that jurors do not see or hear about it until they are deliberating.

The U.S. attorneys need to “elicit some testimony” about each piece of evidence, Ellis said.

4. The juicy, incriminating evidence may have to wait

Prosecutors so far have not shown jurors anything that indicates Manafort broke the law.

Instead, they’ve spent most of the first two days of witness testimony buttering up the jury by explaining: 1) how Manafort made his fortune (political consulting for Eastern European politicians), and 2) how he spent that fortune (on seven homes, including a $200 million estate just miles from the courthouse where Manafort stands trial, hundreds of thousands of dollars in antique rugs, and the now-infamous $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich).

“For most prosecutions, the way they unfold is you want to tell a story. You want it to go in a narrative form,” the former DOJ prosecutor said. “They’re going to tell the story chronologically of how it all happened.”

The prosecutors are trying to paint a picture of Manafort for the jury as a man consumed by money, who would willingly and knowingly lie on IRS documents to circumvent taxes and keep more of that money.

The potential bombshell, the actual evidence of illegal activity that sinks Manafort, would come later.

“Based on their exhibit list, they’ve got emails. Now, we’re not sure what the emails are going to say, but they’ve got lots of emails,” the former DOJ prosecutor said.

5. The Eastern Virginia “Rocket Docket” is living up to its name

The U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia is notorious for its whiplash pace pushing along cases.

Through just two days, Ellis has overseen the selection of a jury, heard opening arguments, raced through dozens of documents of evidence, and heard from five witnesses.

Asonye told Ellis on Wednesday afternoon that prosecutors could rest their case as early as next week. That’s roughly half the amount of time the prosecutors originally said the trial would take.

They are moving through witnesses on a case-by-case basis as they suss out which evidence to present before the jury.

If they do indeed drop Gates from the witness list, as Asonye hinted they might earlier, other witnesses could follow.

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